Supreme Court Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh attend the State of the Union address in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives at the U.S. Capitol Building on February 5, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images)
The news spread quickly on Monday from the nation’s highest court to its largest maximum-security prison, the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
That morning, in the case Edwards v. Vannoy, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that its 2020 Ramos v. Louisiana decision — which held that the Sixth Amendment right to a unanimous jury applies in Louisiana — is not retroactive.
In other words, the ruling only makes non-unanimous juries unconstitutional moving forward and for people whose convictions weren’t final. Because Louisiana voters put an end to non-unanimous jury verdicts in 2018, the Ramos ruling only has practical meaning to Oregon and Puerto Rico.
Monday’s opinion, written by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, means there will be no new trials for petitioner Thedrick Edwards and other prisoners already serving time because of split-jury convictions — a setback for the 1,500 to 1,600 people in Louisiana prisons serving time after only 10 or 11 jury members voted to convict.
Nearly 20 of those defendants live in Angola’s Oak 4 dormitory. When they heard about the ruling, some men crawled back into bed, pulling the covers over their heads said 54-year-old Abdullah Muhammad..
“The spirit changed in the room,” said Muhammad, who has educated himself about the law while serving nearly 30 years of a life sentence for armed robbery-murder convictions that included a split jury.
Last year, Muhammad and others in his dorm were heartened to read the Ramos decision and its decisive line: “A verdict, taken from 11, is no verdict at all.”
The question before the Supreme Court was whether its Ramos ruling met the “watershed” threshold, that is, whether it was so significant that it should be applied retroactively to cases deemed final. In writing for the 6-3 conservative majority, Justice Kavanaugh said that the Supreme Court found that defendants had the right to a jury but didn’t make it retroactive; restricted hearsay testimony but didn’t make that retroactive; and prohibited prosecutors from striking potential jurors because of their race, also without making it retroactive. Ramos, he wrote, shouldn’t apply to previous cases, either.
Not only does Kavanaugh’s opinion find that Ramos doesn’t meet the watershed standard, it says that no cases will. “Continuing to articulate a theoretical exception that never actually applies in practice,” he writes, “offers false hope to defendants, distorts the law, misleads judges, and wastes the resources of defense counsel, prosecutors, and courts.”
Louisiana’s attorney general, Jeff Landry, hailed the high court’s ruling on behalf of his office, which had argued against retroactivity. “Today, the Supreme Court reaffirmed long-final convictions involving rape, murder, child molestation, and other violent crimes,” he wrote in a press release.
In other states, a non-unanimous jury is a hung jury and requires a new trial. But in Louisiana, until 2018, people could be convicted of serious offenses — up to and including second-degree murder — by split juries. In last year’s decision, the Supreme Court outlined how state laws establishing non-unanimous juries in Louisiana and Oregon, “originated in white supremacism and continued in our own time to have racially discriminatory effects.”
In Louisiana, for instance, the law was written at the 1898 Constitutional Convention convened by self-professed white supremacists. In the Ramos decision, Justice Brett Kavanaugh referred to split juries as a “pillar of a comprehensive and brutal program of racist Jim Crow measures against Black people.”
On Monday morning, Muhammad felt the need to give hope to the people around him. So he stood up next to his bunk at the back of the dorm, where 86 prisoners sleep in four aisles of bunk beds.
Muhammad said, “I told them, ‘Let me have your attention. I know a lot of you are upset that the Supreme Court denied retroactivity today.”
Men sat up in bed and listened, as Muhammad explained that, by his interpretation, the Supreme Court ruling merely meant that the federal government was not going to order the State of Louisiana to give new trials to everyone affected by split verdicts. “But the Louisiana Supreme Court, if they have the right case, can still rule on retroactivity,” Muhammad said. “The higher court wants Louisiana to handle its own business.”
Agreed, said Jamila Johnson, managing attorney for the Jim Crow Juries Project at the Promise of Justice Initiative in New Orleans, which worked with 60 pro bono law firms and more than 700 lawyers across the country to file post-conviction applications on behalf of 1,049 prisoners serving time for convictions by non-unanimous juries.
“What they really said was that the federal government is not the one to solve this for the people who remain imprisoned. It’s now up to the state,” Johnson said.
The issue at hand is states’ rights versus federalism, Johnson said. “The Supreme Court was looking at whether they could force a state to retry cases. But the states have always had the right to make their own decisions about whether a law should be retroactive.”
“The fight is not over,” Johnson said. It’s now up to the state to deal with the post-conviction applications. Louisiana’s top court may look at how its own interpretations of law were changed by Monday’s Supreme Court decision or consider “the impact this has had on the credibility of Louisiana’s justice system,” she said.
Also, within the next week or so, state legislators will hold a hearing about House Bill 346, which would offer remedies to those convicted by split juries. Some convictions could be vacated, granting new trials — or more likely, leading to plea bargains that release people for time served. A Promise of Justice Initiative report found that most of the people affected by split juries are, like Muhammad, serving life sentences without the possibility of parole. Eighty percent are Black.
A second remedy offered through the bill proposed by Rep. Randal L. Gaines (D-LaPlace) would offer immediate parole eligibility for more longtime prisoners who have performed well in custody. Those people would be giving up their right to a new trial in exchange for release.
In New Orleans, Jason Williams, the new district attorney, had formed a task force to review hundreds of “Jim Crow jury” verdicts made within Orleans Parish criminal courts between 1974 and 2014. Already, the prosecutor has vacated the convictions of about two-dozen defendants. Some will go through new trials; most agreed to plead guilty in exchange for sentence reductions.
Muhammad, who grew up in Orleans but was convicted in St. James Parish, watched prisoners leave Angola last month after being granted a chance to challenge their unconstitutional verdicts. That in itself raised his spirits. So, even on Monday morning, despite the legal setback, Muhammad sent his lawyer three email messages morning about the possibilities that remained. “Every day I wake up, I have hope,” he said.
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